The evolution of Capital Region’s love affair with baseball
By Arthur Einig
So. We begin in a simpler time, as if there ever really was such an animal. It’s the early 1840s. New York City. A fireman, Alexander Cartwright of the Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 12, wonders how he and his fellow firefighters could unwind and blow off a little steam on days off.
Eventually, Cartwright takes elements of cricket, rounders and one o’ cat, and develops a new game—baseball, which requires players to use agility, anticipation and strategy even more than did their precursors.
In 1846, Cartwright and his team, the Knickerbockers, play a game with the New York Nine. It catches the imagination of the people. Teams are formed and create a federation, of sorts—the National Association of Baseball Players (NABBP).
By 1859, they boast 59 clubs, 51 of them from Greater New York. As so many ideas are spread to regions via river travel, so it was with baseball and the Hudson.
And so it begins
By 1860, the NABBP boasted 62 members, the Victorys of Troy being one of them. Thus began the love affair between the Capital Region and baseball. West Troy, too, had a team, the Excelsiors. There were also the Vanguards of Cohoes. Albany had two teams, The Champions and The Beverwycks.
Schenectady’s team was called the Mohawks. Saratoga, too, had a team. Teams were formed as far north as Whitehall, which went by the name The Unions.
Two other teams from Troy, The Priams and the Baseball Club of Lansingburgh, merged to become the Union Baseball Club of Rensselaer County.
The Civil War raged. NABBP teams were decimated as men left to enlist, but baseball, already referred by many as “The National Game,” had already made its impression, and troops from both sides carried the game from battlefield to battlefield. One of the better teams was the 165th New York Volunteers.
Even as the war went on, town after town set aside land and laid out baseball diamonds. Leagues sprang into existence and teams sprouted up overnight. Leagues affiliated themselves with yet other leagues, and it’s from here that the confusion originates: For example, over the years, there were three different entities known as the Eastern League. There were two Hudson River leagues. There were numerous instances when one league merged with another and, well, you see what I mean.
With the end of the war, NABBP membership picked up again and soon there were over 100 teams. One of those teams was the old Lansingburgh Unions, which eventually became the Troy Haymakers and then the Troy Trojans.
The Unions celebrated a return to life with a novel idea—cardboard cards sporting photos of their players. The E.S. Sterry Co. of Albany produced six cards, which you can buy today for two easy payments of $100,000 each.
‘Bunch of Haymakers’
As for the name “Haymakers,” that came about after Troy beat the powerful New York Mutuals, the team owned by Boss Tweed. One of the Mutuals couldn’t believe that they were defeated by a “bunch of haymakers.” Intended as an insult, the Troy ballplayers adopted the moniker and wore it like a badge of honor.
The year 1864 marked the first time a team charged an admission fee to one of its games, but money had crept into the game as early as 1860, when a player on the Brooklyn Eckfords was paid for his services—under the table, of course. As time passed, more and more players came to be paid and it became less and less of a secret.
The National Pastime was the perfect mixture of fun and exercise and kept growing in popularity. By 1867, there were more than 400 NABBP teams. With an ever-growing number of players being paid, owners had no choice but to allow teams to openly admit they were paying one or more players, meaning the team would now be considered professional.
With that, came betting on and fixing the outcome of games, better known as hippodroming, which probably existed even before 1867.
Whenever amateur teams played professional teams, the games were lopsided and soon, a new league was formed—the NAPBBP, the National Association of PROFESSIONAL Baseball Players. Troy was one of the eight teams that paid the $10 entry fee to play in the new league. The NABBP, unable to compete, went the way of the dinosaur.
When they were part of the NABBP, Troy bucked the unspoken policy of racism by putting Cuban-born Esteban Enrique “Steve” Bellan on the roster and when they were with the NAPBBP, they signed the first Jewish player in the professional ranks, Lipman Emanuel Pike. The Pikes were of Dutch Jewish descent.
In 1871, they played out of Haymakers’ Grounds in Green Island (which has since given way to houses and tree-lined streets) but quit the league partway through the next season due to “an empty treasury.” Financial woes beset the league as a whole and the entire operation went belly-up in 1875.
William Hulbert, team owner of the now-defunct league, certain that the league went broke due to poor business practices, wholly believed that baseball could be a profitable venture in a league with himself at the helm and the other owners agreed.
In February 1876, the National League was born. Six of its eight teams came directly from the National Association, but, nevertheless, today’s MLB still refuses to officially recognize that as the first Major League. The Haymakers, notorious for rowdiness and drinking, were not invited to join, so they joined the League Alliance, a minor league.
Three years later, the NL asked the Trojans if they would like to join. They accepted and played out of Putnam Grounds, on Peoples Avenue and 15th Street. Today, the ballpark takes the shape of a gently sloping hill, a park bench and a very handsome garbage can.
For the two years following, they played out of Haymakers Grounds, and eventually relocated to a better-looking field in Watervliet. Today, the Troy Ball Club Grounds lives on, cleverly disguised as a parking lot, woods and train tracks running between.
First game-ending grand slam
The ’80 season was unmemorable, as was ’81, save for one grand moment—Roger Connor slugged the first game-ending grand slam in NL history (the term “walk-off” not coined until 1980). However, it was more than that: It was, as it came to be known in later years, though the term is out of vogue today, a Sayonara Slam.
Such a slam occurs only when the bases are loaded, it’s the bottom of the ninth, there are two out, the team at bat is down by exactly three runs, and nothing will save them but a grand slam home run. Connor’s Haymakers won the game for Troy, 8-7.
A second walk-off grand slam did not occur until Babe Ruth did it in 1925. Back in 1921, The Babe clubbed his 139th round-tripper, eclipsing yet another record of Connor’s: most career home runs.
Connor’s heroics notwithstanding, league owners decided that Troy wasn’t bringing in enough money and shouldn’t be invited back in 1882.
John Day, owner of the New York Gothams, saw an opportunity to make the Gothams great and immediately signed Trojan stars Roger Connor, Buck Ewing and Mickey Welch. Tim Keefe signed with another team of Day’s, the New York Metropolitans. Each is, today, in the Hall of Fame. Another former Trojan, Big Dan Brouthers, who played for a few other teams, is also a Hall of Famer.
Although baseball made its way up from NYC via the Hudson to Troy and from there, throughout the Capital Region, it also, since 1877, was working its way down from Canada. The International Association was a Canadian-American league that the Troy Trojans joined in 1888, as did the Albany Governors in 1890.
The Amsterdam Rugmakers, the Gloversville-Johnstown Glovers and the Schenectady Blue Jays played in the Canadian-American League in the 1930s and 40s. Actually, the Blue Jays played through 1959, and, years later, Tommy Lasorda was elected to Cooperstown.
Since the 19th century, ballclubs of black men had been touring the country playing wherever and for whomever they could for whatever pay they could get. The Mohawk Giants was one such team, and embraced and were embraced in 1913 by Schenectady. Island Park was designated as their home field. Today, it’s a Community College parking lot. As for Hall of Famers, the Mohawks produced two, Oscar Charleston and Smokey Joe Williams.
The Mohawks folded in 1915, reorganized in 1929, and eased the daily stresses of many Schenectadians during the Depression years by offering free admission to its games! How rare. How kind. Americans helping Americans.
Besides the Mohawk Giants, the Albany Senators provided the Capital Region with good baseball. From 1916-1932, the team played in the second version of the Eastern League and with the third version from 1938-1959. Ralph Kiner played for the Senators. So far, nine men who played on Capital Region teams have a plaque in the Hall.
Among the greatest memories that the Capital Region has been given by the Albany Senators was its exhibition games with the New York Yankees of Murderer’s Row fame. From 1928-1931, Babe Ruth made it a practice to play one exhibition game a year at Albany’s Hawkins Stadium against our Senators.
In 1929, The Babe launched three homers in batting practice, one being the longest ever hit in Albany’s existence! In 1938, three years after his retirement, he returned to play for us one last time, while coaching with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He retired with 714 major league home runs. Not many people are aware that he hit #715 in that 1938 exhibition game.
Still goin’ strong!
After the ’59 season, the Senators were dropped from the Eastern League. The team regrouped in 1982, played ‘til 1984 as the Albany-Colonie A’s, and then as the Albany-Colonie Yankees for 10 years after that.
In the interim, fans got to see Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte hone the skills they would soon turn into four New York Yankee World Championships.
The New York Yankees dropped Albany-Colonie after the ’94 season, but the Northeast League picked them up, allowing them to continue at Heritage Park as the Albany-Colonie Diamond Dogs.
In 2002, the Tri-City Valley Cats moved into the area, leading the Diamond Dogs to relocate. The ‘Cats won the New York–Penn League championships of 2010 and 2013 and play at Hudson Valley Community College’s Joseph L. Bruno Stadium.
Area baseball today
The Albany Twilight League is part of the American Amateur Baseball Congress (AABC). Troy fields a team called the Haymakers and Albany fields three teams! The 2017 season will be the league’s 87th.
The AABC is made up of seven different divisions, each tailored to a different age group ranging from 18 to 55. Each division holds a World Series every year, and Troy will, this July 8-14, host the Connie Mack World Series Qualifier for the 18-year-olds.
The AABC is a league of up-and-coming prospects, as well as retired major league professionals. Some of the ex-pros who have played are both Alomar brothers, Derek Jeter, John Smoltz and Ken Griffey Jr.
In 2011, the 13-team Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League was organized. The Amsterdam Mohawks, playing out of Shuttleworth Park, and the Albany Dutchmen, playing out of Bellizzi field, represent the Capital Region—and Amsterdam has won four league championships already!
A few youth programs
Baseball youth programs exist in many towns, usually through school districts. For example, the Clifton Park Baseball League is open to those who live within the Shenendehowa School District.
The Eastern New York Travel Baseball League, headquartered in Schenectady, is open to ballplayers between 9 and 23 years. The Empire State Baseball League, headquartered in Niskayuna, is for 8- to 15-year-olds. The Tri-City Bombers, located in Troy, has teams of 10- to 17-year-olds. Youth baseball teams regularly hold tryouts.
The main point is this: From the first, we Capital Regioners loved baseball, and it was a rare summer’s day when it wasn’t, and isn’t, played somewhere around here. Amen.